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11.1: Extra-Long Straws

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  • A drinking straw is a tube for transferring a beverage from its container to the mouth of the drinker and is typically a thin tube of plastic (such as polypropylene and polystyrene) or other material. Many people believe that when they drink a liquid they are sucking the liquid up, however the liquid is really being pushed up. A straw works because when you suck the air out of the straw, it creates a vacuum. This causes a decrease in air pressure on the inside of the straw. Since the atmospheric pressure is greater on the outside of the straw, liquid is forced into and up the straw and into your mouth (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): As you suck the air out of the straw, it creates a low pressure zone inside of it. With a low pressure zone, there is nothing pushing down on the juice, so it moves upward easily. (CC BY-NC 4.0; Ümit Kaya)

    How Long of a Straw is Possible?

    With the straw just sitting in the glass, the pressure on the surface of the tea is the same all over, including on the little bit of surface inside the straw. When you suck the air out of the straw, you decrease the pressure inside the straw, allowing the higher pressure on the rest of the surface to push the tea up the straw and into your mouth. Because it is really the atmosphere that is doing the pushing, the atmospheric pressure limits how high water will go up a straw.

    If you formed a perfect vacuum within the straw, the pressure outside of the straw at sea level would be enough to push water to a total height of about 10.3 m. A 10.3-m column of water exerts the same pressure—101,325 N/m2 or 14.7 lb/in2 (psi)—as do the gas molecules in our atmosphere. At sea level, the air pressure is enough to support a column of water about thirty feet high. This means that even if you could suck all the air out of a forty-foot straw, the water would not rise more than thirty feet.

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